January 19th, 2018

I’m still waiting for my copy of Dan Harris’ Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-To Book to come in and Oliver Burkeman, writing this morning in Meditation: how to make yourself sit down and do the damn thing for The Guardian, has given me additional reason to look forward to reading the book. I’ve been meditating now for more than 40 years and while I’ve always understood the underlying mechanism of mediating—become distracted, notice that you’ve become distracted, say to yourself, “Oh, I’ve been distracted,” and then, let go of that thought and return your attention to the moment—I never grasped the bigger concept. Burkeman explains”

Getting distracted genuinely isn’t a problem; indeed, noticing when you’re distracted is arguably the whole point—the very moment in which the skill of meditation is developed, equivalent to the moment that you pick up a dumbbell at the gym. “Every time you catch yourself wandering and escort your attention back to the breath, it is like a biceps curl for the brain,” Harris writes. “It is also a radical act: you’re breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of rumination and projection, and you are actually focusing on what’s happening right now.” Getting back on the wagon, over and over, is the practice. And good luck doing that if you haven’t fallen off first.

A similar logic applies to establishing a daily meditation habit, or many other habits, such as physical exercise. If you stop doing it for a while, and then notice that you’re feeling more crotchety, tired or downcast, you’ll have a strong motivation to return to it—far stronger than trying to force things using willpower. Or maybe you’d like to get better at listening to your partner, or not checking your phone during meals, or whatever; again, the more times you notice you’ve failed, the more you’re entraining exactly the presence of mind the new habit requires.

You might think of this as a kind of superhabit, which makes acquiring any new habit easier. If you can turn falling off the wagon into an integral part of the process—even to learn to relish the experience of climbing back aboard—you’ll be using your failure as fuel for success.

You’re not doing it wrong. Or, to be precise: doing it wrong is right.

When I first saw Burkeman’s use of entraining, I thought he’d mistyped. I was wrong. For wetware, to entrain is: to adjust (an internal rhythm of an organism) so that it synchronizes with an external cycle, such as that of light and dark. I like that.

I’m thinking this evening about how I can entrain to adjust my eating cycles to synchronize them with a 12-hour eating/12-hour fasting day where I eat at 0500, 0800, 1100, 1400 and 1700. The bookends are easy, but the two snacks on either side of the lunch are more difficult, but when I fall of the wagon, I just have to get back on. Right?

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